Being one of the more hip and trendy activities these days, it was clearly only a matter of time until ye olde escape room became the setting for a teen-targeted horror flick. It is, after all, a premise that writes itself—lock a gaggle of people in a room full of puzzles, kill them off one-by-one, and then sit back and watch the money roll in. Heck, you don’t even have to be creative with the title. Thus, Escape Roomhas rolled into theaters, and the younger set finally has its very own Saw.

Though it won’t win any awards for sparkling dialogue or robust characters, Escape Room more than holds its own as a solid and fun suspense flick. The story is decent, the puzzles are inventive, and the cast throws its all into it. It may not have a shelf-life longer than a few weeks (pending the sequel that it sets up rather nicely), but there are plenty of worse ways to spend a January night at the local cineplex.

After a grab-your-attention, middle-of-the-game prologue, we jump back three days prior and are introduced to some of the strangers who will soon be trying to survive the hijinks. Super-shy teenager Zoey (Taylor Russell) is being told by her professor to do something that scares her during the upcoming Thanksgiving break, loser Ben (Logan Miller) is fed up with his job at the local quickie mart, and then there’s cock-sure stock trader Jason (Jay Miller) enjoying his days in his snazzy corner office. They each receive a puzzle box in the mail, which, when finally opened, is revealed to be an invitation to try for the $10,000 winner’s prize at the local escape room.

Once there, they meet trucker Mike (Tyler Labine), Army vet Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), and Nik Dodani as escape room expert Danny. (They’re all connected, of course, and the eventual payoff isn’t nearly as disappointing as it could have been.) The game is afoot, and it turns out the challenge is actually a series of escape rooms (super-heated oven room, psychedelic brain-melt room, upside-down pool hall), each with its own challenges (fall-away floors, trash compactor walls, poison gas). Naturally, the gang must work together to solve the puzzles and reach the final exit.

Director Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key) has put together a tight little fun package. The visuals suck you in (especially in that upside-down room), and he coaxed enough buy-in from the cast to make it that much easier for the audience to buy in, too. Of course, you’ll find yourself placing bets in your head as to who will be the lucky survivor (if any) of the perilous puzzles, but isn’t that part of the fun of movies like this?

The script by Bragi Schut (Season of the Witch) and Maria Melnik (TV’s American Gods) is clever in spots and predictable in others, but through it all they wisely choose to focus more on the suspense and the puzzles than on needless gore; even though we get a substantial body count, the amount of blood shown on screen couldn’t fill a shot glass.

Escape Room may not be must-see appointment viewing, but it’s certainly a nifty diversion from all the heady Oscar fare now in theaters. The bottom line is, it works. And it gets 2019 off to a better-than-average start. Go figure.


3/5 stars